The history of the history of silent comedy

We begin our story at the end.  The end of what, you ask?  The end of silent comedy.  It is March of 1949, twenty years after sound came to Hollywood and laid waste to the traditions of silent slapstick.  It is St. Patrick’s Day, and the California Country Club is playing host to an event called the Mack Sennett Alumni and Remember When Association.

The aging wrecks of once sprightly comedians have convened, decked out in ill-fitting finery that went out of fashion back in the days of Prohibition.  They are here to reminisce, to drink, to throw pies at each other.  Mack Sennett, one of the true pioneers responsible for creating Hollywood as we know it, has seen to it his friends don’t waste their efforts on something so ephemeral as mere fun.  He’s brought cameras—to record their shenanigans  for posterity.  This is how he built his empire—by letting funny people do what came naturally and let the cameras roll.

Keystone Kops a sagging

This is not the first time these old coots have gotten together to “remember when.”  Just the year before, the same cast of grizzled characters feted Sennett at the Masquers Club.  Just ten years before, they were recreating their schtick on camera for a serious movie, Irving Cummings’ Hollywood Cavalcade.  The gas are the same—the gags have always been the same, since Woodrow Wilson was elected President.  Only the bodies have changed—the Keystone Kops have grown fat and gray, the once vampy Bathing Beauties now saggy and wrinkled.

Old age comes to us all—it is meaningless to make much out of it.  It is just the accumulation of days on a calendar.  But Sennett and his geriatric chums are more than just old.  They are old-fashioned.

Kops

Once the unrivaled Kings of Comedy, these men and women are now relics of a form and a style long since relinquished to the dusty upper shelves of the attic.  Resentful, the crusty-fusties of the Remember When Association drew the battle lines: we knew what was funny, we knew what was sexy, we knew how to make good pictures.  You upstart youths don’t know a damn thing.  Get a haircut!

To prove his point, Sennett assembled clips of his classic silent comedies into a compilation film Down Memory Lane, distributed by Eagle Lion in the late summer of 1949. (I wanted to run a clip of Down Memory Lane here but I don’t have one–here’s a comparable moment from a similar clip job from 5 years earlier):

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A few years later, Sennett went to the Cannes Film Festival for a retrospective of his classic shorts.  He schemed ideas for a bipic about his storied life.  In short, he clung tenaciously to his achievements and zealously defended them against the changing times.

Nothing came of his biopic idea, but no matter.  Hollywood Cavalcade was in all practical purposes a biography of Sennett—wildly unreliable and inaccurate, sure, but likely no more inaccurate or unreliable than the one Sennett would have made about himself.  The man turned himself into a legend, and even he started to the believe the hype.

Hollywood Cavalcade was a symptom of a larger phenomenon.  Throughout the first few decades of the sound era, Hollywood struggled to come to grips with its silent past.  Or, put another way, the increasingly corporate movie-making industry struggled to spin its messy, anarchic past into a PR-friendly packaged narrative.

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The great dramatic actors and filmmakers of the silent era either made a successful transition to the new rules (Michael Curtiz, John Ford, Howard Hawks) or they faded away (Norma Talmadge, John Gilbert).  But the old guard of slapstick comedians did neither: they stayed, adapting only fitfully and incompetently to the new form.

Most histories of the era overlook that fact.  It is inconvenient.  The story reads better if the great silent clowns not only did their best work on just one side of the silent/talkie divide, but did all of their work there.  Like an adolescent who comes across his or her pacifier and blankie in a closet and marvels at how these items ever meant so much to them, Hollywood found the stubborn presence of its silent clowns to be an uncomfortable reminder of its own infancy.

As Hollywood collectively looked back on its history BS (Before Sound), it struggled to draw a distinction between Then and Now that would keep all the embarrassing pacifiers and blankies on the other side.  And as a result, discussion of silent comedy would overemphasize the primitive aspects of physical comedy.  Hollywood Cavalcade’s version of the Mack Sennett story says that slapstick comedy came about as a consequence of a bumbling fool (Buster Keaton) being unable to execute a dramatic scene correctly.  The implication is obvious: real skill and specialized talent might be needed to survive in today’s Hollywood, but Back Then any jackass could be a slapstick clown.  Why, you could do that stuff by accident.

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That the great filmmakers and comedians of the recent past were heroic figures with unusual skillsets and whose artistry and entrepreneurship reflected the best of American principles, well that was a notion at odds with the orthodoxy that the film industry had progressed to maturity.  As such it was a viewpoint that was infrequently and poorly articulated.  The men and women who were themselves a part of that history did themselves no favors by insisting that the silent era was a superior one—because such an argument only validated the idea that the arrival of sound marked the crossing of a Rubicon, and that you had to choose up sides, silent vs. sound.

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And it’s a losing proposition—if you want to make the case that what distinguishes silent comedy as fundamentally superior is that it is silent, you have to contend with the inescapable fact that silent film is a dead form, obsolete and abandoned (Don’t bother writing comments about The Artist.  I bet it will win Best Picture, but so what?  If there are silent films contending for Oscars and playing in multiplexes next year, and the year after that, then we’ll talk.  Otherwise, The Artist is just a one-off gimmick).  It’s like insisting that Aztec culture is fundamentally superior to every civilization that followed—it’s a self-defeating stance to take.  Nevertheless, this is precisely where most fans and champions of silent comedy set up base camp.

In September 1949, the same year as Mack Sennett’s self-congratulatory Remember When bash and recycled Down Memory Lane clip-job, critic James Agee published in Life Magazine the first substantial critical and historical overview of silent comedy.  It was a landmark essay, the foundational stone upon which all subsequent critical and historical study of slapstick comedy would be built.  It begins with Agee asserting that old-school silent comedy achieved better and more satisfying laughs than anything since, and that the reason talkie comedy could not compete was the basic flaw of talking in a comedy.  In short, silent comedy was by definition Comedy’s Greatest Era, the title of his essay.

James Agee

Mary Pickford once said, “It would have been more logical if silent pictures had grown out of the talkie instead of the other way ‘round.”  It is a much quoted and deeply beloved remark among silent film aficionados—almost a mission statement.  Kevin Brownlow quoted it at the end of The Parade’s Gone By as a summing-up sentiment, and Walter Kerr used it to open his book The Silent Clowns.  There is certainly some sharp theoretical insight there—most art forms do follow a backwards progression from high fidelity into increasing abstraction and reductionism.  Go to any art museum and take a look—the photorealistic images of people and landscapes are the older paintings, and the crazy scribble scrabble are the recent ones.  By the same logic, should not the abstracted reductionism of black and white silent movies have been a modernist improvement upon full-color talkies?

Mack Sennett’s notion of a Remember When Association became the default approach to celebrating silent comedy.  Eventually Sennett and his friends went the way of all flesh, but their followers continued the rite in their stead, dressing up in the fashions of the twenties and nostalgically longing for an innocent age gone.  (I deflected comments on The Artist above, but if you feel like bringing Midnight in Paris into this discussion, this seems an obvious point of contact.  Max, my 11 year old son, loved this film, which I found weird since at 11 what’s he got to be nostalgic about?).

Personally I find this whole thing curious.  At practically every significant retrospective of silent comedy I have attended or arranged, there are some if not several guests who make a point of dressing in 1920s fashions.  Screenings of other silent films—like Metropolis, or Dr. Mabuse—don’t provoke the same reaction.

Let me get specific.  Consider three successive screenings at the National Gallery of Art in the early 2000s.  The first was for Fritz Lang’s Dr. Mabuse the Gambler.  I had been asked to introduce the show, which due to its massive length was shown on two separate afternoons.  On the first day, I got into a lively conversation with the crowd about terrorism, James Bond, and 24.  I took my seat and watched as the first two and a half hours of Mabuse unspooled.  The next day I returned to introduce the second half, and found the same faces eagerly staring at me from the crowd.  These were no casual lazy-day movie-goers, but a serious crowd ready to engage with an 80-year-old movie as current and living work of popular culture.

A few years later I was back in the exact same auditorium for a retrospective of shorts by Georges Melies.  This time the crowd included a number of school groups from the Washington DC public schools, who watched in rapt attention and fascination at crude special effects and magic tricks created half a world away, generations before they were born.

My third silent film experience at the National Gallery was a Charlie Chaplin double feature, and it was for this show and this show alone that certain members of the crowd felt compelled to raid their grandparents’ closets.  Please understand—I am not poking fun.  I have to count myself among their number: when I was 18, I took a date to a revival of The General in a restored theater in Detroit, wearing my own home-made Buster Keaton outfit.

What’s especially odd about this nostalgic thrall is that almost without exception, the people caught in its grip are too young to have had any genuine nostalgia.  People who actually lived in the 1920s are few and far between these days.  Our nostalgia, however palpable it feels, is artificial.

So where does it come from?

The answer to that question has been staring us in the face all along:  there it is in Down Memory Lane, there it is in Comedy’s Greatest Era.  It’s baked into the plot of Hollywood Cavalcade, it’s in the titles of Robert Youngson’s compilation films When Comedy Was King and The Golden Age of Comedy.  The history of the history of silent comedy has been a nostalgia industry since day one.  By treating the advent of sound as a dividing line between Then and Now, any celebration of “Then” turned into a pining for something lost.  Over time, that nostalgia became a self-feeding phenomenon.

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And if the nostalgia of the first generation of slapstick aficionados got permanently enshrined as a component of silent comedy fandom, what else became a permanent fixture as well?  One of my favorite metaphors is the story of the recipe for a roast, in which a family recipe passed down through the generations gave as its first instruction to cut the roast in half.  Finally, one woman asked what no one else ever had—how come?  And it turned out the only reason was that the oven owned by her great grandmother was so small she had to cut the roast to make it fit.  Generations of successors kept that instruction thoughtlessly and pointlessly, because they never revisited the original premise.

Make no mistake—I consider Agee and Kerr and the other historians who wrote the history of silent comedy to be nothing less than heroic, and I re-read their work with glee.  But they allowed an error into the system that needs to be purged—there was a problem with their approach that has infected every work that has come in their wake.  We need to stop cutting the roast in half.

The history of the history of silent comedy really begins with James Agee’s essay.  He brought a fanboy’s passion and an academic’s analytical rigor to bear on the sprawling chaos of silent comedy and expressed its true essence with efficiency, precision, and style.  Agee distilled out the most salient details and reduced the world of slapstick to a coherent and compelling story.

What Agee recognized was that out of the thousands of movies and hundreds of artists who worked at dozens of studios over numberless years, a small handful had proven themselves superior.  Films like The Kid, The Navigator, and The Freshman had demonstrated a rare combination of commercial appeal, enduring popularity, and artistic distinction.  Instead of even trying to tame the whole of slapstickiography, it would be best to focus on the best.  And so, one could single out those comedians who were at the top of their form (Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd), examine their biographies and their best films, and identify their distinguishing characteristics.  From that, a working model could be divined of what made slapstick work.

And in doing this, certain facts jumped out: these particular comics weren’t just screen performers, they were filmmakers whose artistry encompassed every aspect of production.  They were directors and actors at once—auteurs.  As directors they were businessmen, as actors they were acrobats.  They brought their own unique creative vision and personal style to their films, they maintained consistent screen personas, and they left the short comedy form for the larger canvas of features, using the extended length to develop more epic plots and nuanced character development.  These, then, were the attributes that separated Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd from their peers.

In the middle stretch of the 20th century, these three were the subjects of happy retrospectives, gushing critical surveys, honorary Oscars, and the like.

In the 1970s, the next wave of film scholars who had come of age during that midcentury revival took to expanding on Agee’s article in their own words.  Gerald Mast published The Comic Mind in 1973; Walter Kerr published The Silent Clowns in 1975; Leonard Maltin published The Great Movie Comedians in 1978.  There were other writers both before and after—my intention isn’t to mindlessly list book titles but to illustrate a common approach.

Comic MInd

Rather than paraphrase it, I’ll just let Gerald Mast say it, in this excerpt from The Comic Mind:

“This not a history of film comedy or comedians but a historical survey of the most significant minds that have worked with the comic-film form.  The study will predictably neglect those comic performers who exerted little control over the antics they performed and no control over the way those antics were shot, edited, and scored.”

Mast is only articulating plainly the implicit assumptions shared by nearly every writer that has approached this subject.  But in saying it aloud, he allows us to see the circular logic that has justified so much distortion.

His study, predictably neglecting those comic performers who were mere performers instead of filmmaking auteurs, focuses (in the chapters on silent comedy) on Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd, and Langdon.  His attitude towards Langdon is strongly colored by his impression Langdon was not really an auteur—when supported by filmmakers like Frank Capra he was brilliant, but faltered when alone.  But while he takes pains to distinguish when Langdon was collaborating with Capra, at no point anywhere in the text does he mention a single one of the filmmaking collaborators of Chaplin, Keaton, or Lloyd—no name checks for Rollie Totheroh, Clyde Bruckman, Elgin Lessley, Fred Newmeyer, Fred Gabourie, Bernie Walker… Mast takes for granted that Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd were singularly responsible for every one of their films, even though Keaton and Lloyd rarely gave themselves directing credit on the films they allegedly dominated.

Meanwhile, what of the comic performers predictably neglected?  Monty Banks, Lloyd Hamilton, Billy West, Raymond Griffith, Charley Chase, Roscoe Arbuckle—these were entrepreneurial stars who also served behind the cameras, holding extensive creative power over their own films and those made by others.  Many comedians made features.  Some were creative moguls who shaped films by comedians other then themselves.

It is not my intention to bash Mast.  His is an excellent book that succeeds at what it sets out to do.  The problem is not that he limited his scope in this way—but that nearly everyone else did too, and for the same reason.

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Let’s back up and try to follow the logic:  Certain filmmakers and film distinguish themselves from the rest of the genre by virtue of their excellence.  The very best practitioners of the form are Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Harold Lloyd with a few also-ran peers who came close to their excellence but never surpassed it.  Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd have in common that they were auteurist professionals who did their most influential work in features, over which they exercised a significant degree of creative control.  Therefore, what made them great was their auteurism, that they worked in features, and their creative freedom, and that explains why their films are superior.

Wait, what?  It’s Alice in Wonderland logic!

The conclusion isn’t the end result of the preceding statements at all.  It’s like saying “I like pizza, pizza has cheese on it, therefore all food with cheese on it is pizza, and if it doesn’t have cheese on it I won’t like it.”  Once you limit your focus to just these three guys, then whatever details you find in their lives or films CANNOT be used as definitional for the rest of the films and filmmakers you elected to ignore.

You simply cannot reliably claim that the reason Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd are superior is that they alone were auteurist feature-making comedians if you’ve chosen to ignore all other auteurist feature-making comedians because Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd are superior.  The logic wraps around itself, justifying its own ignorance.  This is the error buried in the heart of silent comedy scholarship, a baked-in prejudice that has suppressed discussion of many meritorious figures, fascinating connections, and hilarious movies that did not fit the pre-established storyline.  The history of silent comedy has been selectively warped to account for the absence of those figures who were omitted because they were “irrelevant.”

0 Response The history of the history of silent comedy
Posted By Susan Doll : February 18, 2012 2:15 pm

Very interesting article, with relevancy to all early film histories with their wrong perceptions that were passed down.The incorrect plot descriptions of films in histories prior to the age of VHS never ceased to amaze me. I remember one of my film history texts from my grad-student days saying something like, “the camera rarely moved during the Golden Age of Hollywood.” Yikes!

However,I agree that the silent era has likely suffered the most from the big-three-auteur syndrome.

Posted By Susan Doll : February 18, 2012 2:15 pm

Very interesting article, with relevancy to all early film histories with their wrong perceptions that were passed down.The incorrect plot descriptions of films in histories prior to the age of VHS never ceased to amaze me. I remember one of my film history texts from my grad-student days saying something like, “the camera rarely moved during the Golden Age of Hollywood.” Yikes!

However,I agree that the silent era has likely suffered the most from the big-three-auteur syndrome.

Posted By Ben Model : February 18, 2012 4:18 pm

The other essential – and unique – element to silent film comedy was the cranking speed. Comedians utilized the speed-up to create gags that were almost on a cartoon-reality-scale, gags they couldn’t do once they had to shoot and project at the same frame rate. “The Artist” was shot at 22fps – the whole film – and sped up to 24fps, with no variation in cranking speeds for different kinds of scenes (action, chases, etc).

Posted By Ben Model : February 18, 2012 4:18 pm

The other essential – and unique – element to silent film comedy was the cranking speed. Comedians utilized the speed-up to create gags that were almost on a cartoon-reality-scale, gags they couldn’t do once they had to shoot and project at the same frame rate. “The Artist” was shot at 22fps – the whole film – and sped up to 24fps, with no variation in cranking speeds for different kinds of scenes (action, chases, etc).

Posted By Rob Farr : February 18, 2012 8:40 pm

Great piece David. But let’s give some props to Robert Youngson and Paul Killiam for reintroducing mainstream audiences of the ’50s and ’60s to Charley Chase, Harry Langdon, Billy West, Snub Pollard, Max Davidson and most especially Laurel & Hardy. Blackhawk Films also offered a variety of films starring all of the above and more. So it seems to me mid-century audiences had plenty of opportunities to explore the wide range of silent comedy.

Posted By Rob Farr : February 18, 2012 8:40 pm

Great piece David. But let’s give some props to Robert Youngson and Paul Killiam for reintroducing mainstream audiences of the ’50s and ’60s to Charley Chase, Harry Langdon, Billy West, Snub Pollard, Max Davidson and most especially Laurel & Hardy. Blackhawk Films also offered a variety of films starring all of the above and more. So it seems to me mid-century audiences had plenty of opportunities to explore the wide range of silent comedy.

Posted By Peter Denman : February 19, 2012 2:51 am

Where does the 13-part Brownlow documentary titled “Hollywood”, narrated by James Mason, fit into the picture? I remember it as the best ever about silent films.

Posted By Peter Denman : February 19, 2012 2:51 am

Where does the 13-part Brownlow documentary titled “Hollywood”, narrated by James Mason, fit into the picture? I remember it as the best ever about silent films.

Posted By Gregory Maupin : February 19, 2012 10:40 am

Terrific post.

On the comedy/nostalgia point: I wonder, too, if there’s something in the difficulty of watching one era’s comedy in a different time without a reasonable knowledge of that time.

I’ve done my own struggling to get Shakespeare’s comic pieces to work on stage in a way that doesn’t require footnotes, and while that era is more distant, the problem is the same: comedy often works best when it’s of the moment, a problem tragedy doesn’t really share, and silent comedies that seem creaky now were being built at a time when few really grokked that they’d be preserved for so long.

I can watch Pandora’s Box, say, and I don’t really need a class on Culture of the Age to get very clearly what’s going on throughout, but without at least a bit of a working knowledge of the ‘teens and ‘twenties, one is going to miss a LOT even when watching The Big Three, who do tend to translate more easily. And the folks who have done that also maybe tend to own a couple of brimmed hats and spatterdashes, to have an affinity for more of the culture of that time than just its film.

Posted By Gregory Maupin : February 19, 2012 10:40 am

Terrific post.

On the comedy/nostalgia point: I wonder, too, if there’s something in the difficulty of watching one era’s comedy in a different time without a reasonable knowledge of that time.

I’ve done my own struggling to get Shakespeare’s comic pieces to work on stage in a way that doesn’t require footnotes, and while that era is more distant, the problem is the same: comedy often works best when it’s of the moment, a problem tragedy doesn’t really share, and silent comedies that seem creaky now were being built at a time when few really grokked that they’d be preserved for so long.

I can watch Pandora’s Box, say, and I don’t really need a class on Culture of the Age to get very clearly what’s going on throughout, but without at least a bit of a working knowledge of the ‘teens and ‘twenties, one is going to miss a LOT even when watching The Big Three, who do tend to translate more easily. And the folks who have done that also maybe tend to own a couple of brimmed hats and spatterdashes, to have an affinity for more of the culture of that time than just its film.

Posted By Juana Maria : February 19, 2012 7:51 pm

I too love alot the silent comedies, Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin and my very favorite Harold Lloyd. Thanks for the article.

Posted By Juana Maria : February 19, 2012 7:51 pm

I too love alot the silent comedies, Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin and my very favorite Harold Lloyd. Thanks for the article.

Posted By dukeroberts : February 21, 2012 12:42 am

I never would have thought to include anyone else in the company of The Big Three. This is due in part to my own ignorance of course, but I feel liberated from being solely at fault due to your piece. I have seen a couple Fatty Arbuckle films and I have turned off one or two Harry Langdon films, but never really considered that they should be included with the likes of Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd.

I have enjoyed all of the work I have seen from The Big Three (with the one exception being the sloppy A King in New York, but it is not silent, so…), but will continue to educate myself on others thanks to you, Mr. Kalat. I also enjoy just dropping in on these conversations so I can read the inciteful comments from the more learned and experienced silent film fans.

Posted By dukeroberts : February 21, 2012 12:42 am

I never would have thought to include anyone else in the company of The Big Three. This is due in part to my own ignorance of course, but I feel liberated from being solely at fault due to your piece. I have seen a couple Fatty Arbuckle films and I have turned off one or two Harry Langdon films, but never really considered that they should be included with the likes of Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd.

I have enjoyed all of the work I have seen from The Big Three (with the one exception being the sloppy A King in New York, but it is not silent, so…), but will continue to educate myself on others thanks to you, Mr. Kalat. I also enjoy just dropping in on these conversations so I can read the inciteful comments from the more learned and experienced silent film fans.

Posted By DBenson : February 21, 2012 3:59 pm

You might have thrown in “Show People,” a Marion Davies film that took the same superior attitude to slapstick . . . DURING the silent era. That movie’s “comedians” were costumed like circus clowns and randomly running around like idiots, looking nothing like an actual Keystone from the previous decade, much less a Roach film where comics in street clothes crafted plausible mayhem . . . at least as plausible as “Show People’s” own story of a would-be dramatic actress rising to stardom as an accidental comic.

Another thought: Youngson and other producers were certainly limited by what was available, but what about prevailing tastes in humor? Today they might choose to linger on the byplay that evokes modern improv-style comedy (Stan and Ollie having hat trouble), or choose the more surreal gags over basic destruction.

Posted By DBenson : February 21, 2012 3:59 pm

You might have thrown in “Show People,” a Marion Davies film that took the same superior attitude to slapstick . . . DURING the silent era. That movie’s “comedians” were costumed like circus clowns and randomly running around like idiots, looking nothing like an actual Keystone from the previous decade, much less a Roach film where comics in street clothes crafted plausible mayhem . . . at least as plausible as “Show People’s” own story of a would-be dramatic actress rising to stardom as an accidental comic.

Another thought: Youngson and other producers were certainly limited by what was available, but what about prevailing tastes in humor? Today they might choose to linger on the byplay that evokes modern improv-style comedy (Stan and Ollie having hat trouble), or choose the more surreal gags over basic destruction.

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